Whether we’re conscious of it or not, choice architecture is behind the online decisions we make every day. From purchasing airline tickets to choosing a health care plan, corporations and organizations are constantly engineering ways to present choices to users that influence their decisions. 

The way choice architecture works is simple yet effective. While you have the freedom to make choices online, a designer has already made a decision on how to present those choices to you in order to influence what you ultimately choose — a pre-checked box, for example.

These defaults can serve a great benefit: An employer might automatically enroll an employee into a retirement plan during the onboarding process, for example. At the same time, defaults can have negative consequences, causing people to make choices by accident that they later come to regret.

It’s these accidental decisions that are the subject of new research by Columbia Business School Professor Eric Johnson, the Norman Eig Professor of Business and author of The Elements of Choice. Johnson and co-researchers Andrey Simonov, the Gary Winnick and Martin Granoff Associate Professor of Business at CBS, CBS PhD candidate Nathaniel Posner, and Baylor University Professor Kellen Mrkva analyzed data submitted to the Federal Election Commission ahead of the 2020 election cycle and found that pre-checked boxes on donation sites caused voters to make more than $43 million in recurring donations to political campaigns. These “dark defaults” have contributed to an increase in the number of refund requests made by donors, according to the researchers.

Dark Defaults

As part of their study, the team analyzed 14.8 million donations made by 2.6 million donors to ActBlue, a fundraising platform for Democratic candidates, and WinRed, its Republican counterpart. During their analysis, the researchers found that the operators of several campaign websites for Republican candidates had modified the choice architecture of their site. Specifically, they changed a pre-checked box that initially led to monthly donation repetition to instead repeat donations on a weekly basis.

“I don't know if it even comes close to holding the world's record or the biggest effect, but at the same time, $43 million is nothing to sneeze at,” says Johnson, who notes that recurring donations made up around 10 percent of the funds raised by the sites. “I think part of why people go to websites like this is because they're in a hurry to register their feelings and they don't read the fine print carefully.”

Using the Internet Archive, the researchers found that half of the campaigns altered the checkbox throughout September and October 2020. This dark default led donors to request a disproportionate amount of refunds — an additional $2.9 million that they wouldn’t have requested otherwise. The researchers also found that these dark defaults impacted smaller donors — those who initially donated less than $200 — as they were more likely to initiate a recurring donation and pay proportionally more than larger donors. 

The World Is Not Getting Simpler

Several US policymakers have championed legislation to ban the inclusion of pre-checked boxes on donation sites, including Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). However, efforts have stalled, leaving donors still exposed to the practice in the 2024 election cycle.

“The general advice people give is that you need to check for pre-checked boxes or, say, monitor your credit card statements. But at the same time, there's only that much you can do because all those things require effort, attention, and cognition,” says Simonov. “Firms, on the other hand, spend a lot of resources on designing defaults and need to do it only once. It only seems fair if they bore greater responsibility for collecting money this way.”

Looking ahead to the 2024 election, the researchers agree dark defaults are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recent trends in campaign fundraising, especially as political fundraising and direct marketing techniques become more intertwined. They cite other tactics donors should be aware of, including email campaigns disguised as forwards from friends.

“You've got to focus more on what's happening because of these techniques,” Posner says. “Are people regretting the choices they make and asking the campaigns for their money back? That's what we find in the paper. That's what you hear anecdotally from interviews.”

He adds, “I think policymakers need to focus on why these tactics cause people to do things that they wouldn't have done otherwise and design policies to prevent that from happening.”